Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Bestwick, Roth-Steyr (2020)

Simon Bestwick, Roth-Steyr. Black Shuck Books, 2020. Pp. 167. ISBN 978-1-913038-57-1. £7.99.

Reviewed by Rachel Verkade

In his blurb for this novella, Bestwick writes: “You never know which ideas will stick in your head, let alone where they’ll go.” I can sympathise. Sometimes you idly researching knitting techniques and end up joining a course on the care and husbandry of wool goats, sometimes you’re looking up antique pistols and end up writing a 200 page novella on immortal World War I artistocrats and their quest to save the monarchy. It happens. In Bestwick’s case, an idle writing exercise in which he decided to use the name of an antique pistol as the title of a story resulted in Roth-Steyr, and we are all the richer for it.

Valerie Varden has an ordinary life. She works long hours at a hospital mortuary, likes caramel lattes, and goes home to a loving girlfriend. She is also an immortal soldier in a long-dead war, a soldier who deserted her comrades and her country, fleeing to Britain in search of anonymity and normalcy. But, as might be expected, the ghosts of the pasts are coming back to haunt her, and Valerie’s old friends and foes are closer than she might like to believe.

Roth-Steyr is most definitely an odd story. It features Viennese aristocrats turned into immortal soldiers that can only be killed with magic pistols, a mystical gate to another (and very disturbing) dimension, assassinations, early 20th century European politics, a mad scientist, and a jaded lesbian anti-heroine. It’s a bizarre mixture of Highlander, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the brutal teacher and ruthless training sequences from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. And, quite frankly, there’s a lot in there to love.

Valerie Varden is a wonderful character, tough, determined, smart, likeable, and a deadly shot. The story unfolds in the form of a letter to her girlfriend, confessing the truth of her life. Born in 1889, Valerie was a countess in pre-World War I Vienna. When the war erupted and the Austrian aristocracy were targetted for assassination and elimination, Valeria and her twin brother joined an elite group of upper class soldiers created to hunt down the Black Eagles, an ultra right-wing nationalist militia out to save the Habsburg royal family from itself. Their ultimate goal, to assassinate Emperor Charles I and replace him with someone who would preserve the Empire in all its glory. Valerie and her fellows became the Falkenjaeger, the Falcon Hunters (even Valerie admits it’s not a perfect translation), whose mission is to find and kill all of the Black Eagles. The problem? The Black Eagles have discovered the secret to immortality, and their newly-immortal elite members are scattering across Europe.

The only solution, clearly, was to seize their base, including the magickal Gate which turned the Black Eagles immortal, and send the Falkenjaeger through it as well. Then the two factions could pursue each other throughout eternity, for the eternal glory of the Habsburg Empire.

If all of this is starting to sound a bit insane to you, you’re not alone. It’s a massive point in Val’s favour that she realised and acknowledged the futility of the whole endeavour and got the hell out after thirty years or so. The moral ambiguity of the novella and its characters is one of its strongest points; there can be no doubt that the Black Eagles are bad guys, but the Falkenjaeger aren’t exactly on the side of the angels either, with their blatantly nationalist and nepotistic agenda. As time goes on, members on both sides either descend more fully into zealotry or, like Val, find the futility of their quest growing increasingly clear, especially as the Habsburgs and their empire were dismantled and lost to the annals of history. What’s important to us at twenty-five might seem utterly inconsequential at forty-five. But the reverse is also true; as some people age they cling tighter and tighter to their old ideals. Two sides of the same coin, and I enjoyed seeing both play out among the characters of Roth-Steyr.

Honestly, probably the biggest complaint I have about this novella is that it is too short. The characters are likeable, the story is compelling, the descriptions of the Gate and the horrors within are genuinely disturbing… and I wanted more. I wanted to know more about the Gate and the mysterious robed figures that attend it. I wanted to learn about the process of enchanting the roth-steyr pistols. I wanted to see Val and Tibor, her gay teammate, catting their way through the queer clubs of Weimar Berlin. I wanted to be with them throughout their decades-long hunting of the Black Eagles. Valerie was a very well-rounded and developed character, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough time or space to get to know any of the supporting cast, including the other members of the Falkenjaeger and the Black Eagles. And I wanted to get to know them, particularly the two antagonists. This novella is the ending of a much longer, larger story, a small part, and I want the rest of it.

The second biggest complaint I have involves spoiling the ending, so be warned.


We had to fall back into the dead lesbian/women in refrigerators trope? The story had to end with the murder of Val’s girlfriend? It made narrative sense, but it was such a predictable (and frankly, rather problematic) end that I could see it coming from the first page. It was an unfortunate and very disappointing end to an excellent story.


These issues aside, however, Roth-Steyr is a solid, well-written, and highly enjoyable story. I was hooked from the very first page, and was left desperately wanting to learn more of Valerie’s story and adventures. Simon Bestwick says that the writing of this novella was an unexpected but enjoyable journey, and I think that also describes the experience of reading it. I wish this book was twice as long as it is, and perhaps that’s one of the greatest compliments one can give to a story.

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